Track and field worlds come to Eugene: An unlikely alliance six decades in the making

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On the evening of Friday, Aug. 23, 1968, some of the most accomplished track and field athletes in the United States gathered for a meet at Hayward Field, a nearly half-century old facility on a corner of the University of Oregon campus in the small city of Eugene, which then had a population just under 75,000. The meet had no official name – news accounts at the time called it a “Pre-Olympic meet” or a “twilight” meet. Marketing was not what it would become. Jim Ryun, world record holder in the mile and 1,500 meters, was there. Lee Evans, who six weeks later in Mexico City would win the 400-meter gold medal and set a world record that would last 20 years, was there, too. It was a cool night, with temperatures in the low 60s. Dark clouds tracked across the sky and intermittently spilled raindrops onto the hard cinder track.

The final track event was the 10,000 meters, featuring Gerry Lindgren of Washington State. Lindgren, 22, was already a mythic figure in track and field. Just a month after his high school graduation in 1964, the 5-foot-6, 118- pound Lindgren had run two older Russians off their feet to win the 10k at a 1964 Cold War dual meet in front of more than 50,000 sweltering fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum; he went on to finish ninth, while injured, in the Tokyo Olympic 10,000 meters (won by American Billy Mills). Lindgren came to Eugene still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and hoping to make the ’68 Olympic Team at a second Trials meet two weeks later in Echo Summit, California. (He had dropped out of the 10k at the first Trials, in Los Angeles).

Lindgren’s primary competition would likely come from 24-year-old Ken Moore, a Eugene native and former Oregon runner who had made the Olympic team in the marathon a week earlier. (And who later, as Kenny Moore, would have a stellar career as a Sports Illustrated writer, screenwriter, and author). There were about 8,000 spectators at Hayward – they would favor Moore but respect Lindgren – and embrace the moment. Both men were hoping to hit the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 29 minutes flat.

Among those in the grandstand that evening were two Oregon cross country and track recruits: Incoming freshman Pat Tyson from Tacoma, Washington; and rising high school senior Steve Prefontaine from the coastal fishing town of Coos Bay, Oregon. They were sitting together in the fading light as Lindgren, in his style, dropped the hammer early and opened up a 10-second lead on Moore. Rain fell harder. Cars along the backstretch turned on their headlights to illuminate the track, which was unlighted. Resolutely, Moore ate into Lindgren’s lead. The two men were cut from the same cloth: Lindgren ran more than 200 miles a week as a teenager and would never yield; Moore, who would later become a colleague and friend of mine, once told me, after performing a mind-boggling set of pull-ups on a soccer goal during a detour on a light jog, “The one thing I could always do was red-line.” Two non-quitters, refusing to quit. All around Tyson and Prefontaine, the crowd stomped rhythmically on bleachers, made of Oregon timber. The kids were enthralled.

“I had goose bumps,” says Tyson, who went on to become a high school coach and is now the director of track and cross country at Gonzaga. “There’s Lindgren out there wearing his WSU jersey, and Kenny is catching him foot by foot, meter by meter, and the Olympics are coming. The stomping on the bleachers got louder and louder as they were coming up to the bell.”

Years later, Moore, who died at age 78 on May 4, would recall the race in his biography of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, Bowerman And The Men of Oregon, and write, “On the last backstretch, I give it everything I had and drove into the lead. Gerry stuck right with me around the turn and up the homestretch. I beat Lindgren for the first time, by two feet.” (Both finished just under 29 minutes, but neither made the Olympic team in the 10,000. Moore ran the Olympic marathon and finished 11th).

Tyson felt wasted from the emotion of the race, like something ethereal. He looked over at Prefontaine and saw the face of the converted. “His eyes,” says Tyson. “They were just huge. What a night that was.” The two teenagers walked into the night together, tethered forever – one more than the other, in a public sense — to a place they had barely known just minutes earlier. Something had happened to them that night, something which would endure, and which thousands of others would experience.

Beginning on Friday and for 10 days and nights, Eugene will host the 18th World Track and Field Championships, a statement of fact that falls hopelessly short of capturing its implausibility. In the more than five decades since Pat Tyson and Steve Prefontaine watched Moore run down Lindgren, Eugene has grown steadily to a population of nearly 175,000 residents, which is nevertheless more than 400,000 fewer than the next-smallest of the other 17 cities to host the Worlds (Gothenburg, Sweden in 1995: pop. 590,000). It’s likely there are tens of millions of non-running, non-college football/Sabrina Ionescu-fan Americans who could not locate Eugene – or, possibly Oregon – on an unmarked map.

The old track on the corner of Agate Street and 15th Ave. was periodically expanded and propped up, (and deservedly cherished, even in its dotage), but in 2018 was demolished altogether – controversially then, and still, to a lesser degree – and replaced by a $200 million Starship Enterprise funded largely through private donations by billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight and others near his tax bracket. It is a breathtaking facility (with some flaws, like a gorgeous “roof” that doesn’t protect many spectators from rain or sun). Former Oregon track coach, TrackTown USA CEO and Eugene 2022 impressario (in absentia) Vin Lananna purposefully calls, it “our national stadium.”

In one very real sense, these Eugene Worlds are long overdue: The United States has been the world’s foremost track and field power since the inception of the modern Olympics and, excepting a brief period at the height of Eastern Bloc athletic ambition (and chicanery) and the career of Usain Bolt, it has not been close. U.S. athletes have won 381 World Championship medals, more than double any other nation (Kenya, 151; Russia, 142; Jamaica, 127; and so on). Through a murky bid process, Worlds have been contested not only in such international capitals as Rome, Paris, Moscow and Beijing, but also in Daegu, South Korea (2011) and Doha, Qatar. The Worlds have long belonged someplace in the United States, and in that sense, this is a time for self-congratulation and celebration.

On the other hand, how that someplace became a small city in the Pacific Northwest is less a story, and more a dream, the type of which is vivid in real time and murky upon waking. There is no relationship in American sports like track and field and Eugene, a marriage in which an entire athletic enterprise is defined by one location. (Penn Relays? Sorry. Great event. One weekend is not enough). Again, Lananna: “Eugene has been the spiritual home of American track and field for a long time.”

There is no definitive timeline to measure Eugene’s takeover of what was once the pre-eminent of all Olympic sports. (Not so much anymore, but still among the most important). It is a story in small pieces, across six decades of Americana. It is one visionary coach, and then another, many years later. It is an icon who died young, but who has never really left. It is six Olympic Trials. It is a passionate local fan base of uncertain endurance — long of tooth, grey of hair. It is, perhaps, most of all, a diminished sport (like so many), and one city that kept the front porch light on when many others with far more resources did not.

“There are people who complain that Eugene is too small and too remote,” says Tom Jordan, a Stanford graduate who moved to Eugene in 1982 with affection for the community’s love of running and track and field and was the meet director of the esteemed Prefontaine Classic from 1985-2021. “Nobody is stopping other cities from doing what Eugene has done.” (This a verifiably true). “Without Eugene,” says Jordan, “the sport of track and field would be in the wilderness.” (Also likely true, but some would argue track and field is in the wilderness anyway). There will be fresh issues beyond July 24, when the Worlds end; the story is not over.

That story began with Bowerman. A native of Portland and a 1934 graduate of the University of Oregon, Bowerman served in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II and received a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He took over the Oregon track program in 1948 and would eventually coach 64 All-Americas and 33 Olympians. But the program became a national power, and Eugene a destination, in the 1960s.The Ducks won four NCAA team titles from 1964-72, and Hayward hosted its first NCAA Championship meet in 1962, and seven more before the turn of the century. The local populace embraced track and field. “Dual meets were broadcast on the radio,’’ says Tyson. “How crazy is that?” Pretty crazy. Bowerman is remembered as a coach, but he was equally — perhaps more — skilled at promotion.

The foot-stomping fanaticism was already firmly in place when Prefontaine arrived in the fall of 1969, but his presence, personality and performance (and many other qualities not beginning with the letter p) created an aura unlike any track athlete until Bolt. Prefontaine raced fearlessly, and at one time held every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. After leaving Oregon in 1973, he became a tireless advocate for the professionalization of track and field (seemingly a quaint legacy, but a pitched battle at the time). Nothing solidified Prefontaine’s legacy more than his death, in a one-car crash on a winding hillside rode above Eugene, on May 30, 1975. (Prefontaine’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit).

Prefontaine’s greatness, already established, was also unfulfilled; he was just 24 at the time of his death. During the 2012 Olympic Trials, I visited “Pre’s Rock,” the solemn, but also vaguely discomfiting site of Prefontaine’s crash on Skyline Drive, where visitors stand, pray and leave running-themed totems, and wrote a story for about the quasi-religious experience. I interviewed a 25-year-old male runner who said, “He was such a great runner. But the thing that really elevated him was the What If? There’s no period at the end…” James Dean. Jimi Hendrix. Others.

In life, and in death, Prefontaine was powerfully intertwined with the substance of track and field in America and with the aura of Eugene. But so much time has passed. Jordan, who was a writer for Track and Field News when he first came to Eugene, wrote Prefontaine’s biography , but says now: “Pre’s been dead almost 50 years. I think that part is over.”

But is it? Tyson, who has been coaching and recruiting young distance runners since shortly after Prefontaine’s death, says, “There’s not an elite high school distance runner who doesn’t know Pre.”

It’s poignant. But also odd, with a whiff of desperation. Nobody knows this better than Linda Prefontaine, 68, who was born three years after Steve and lived in Eugene from 1973-2017, before moving back to Coos Bay. “When you come to Eugene, you’ll see his face everywhere, still young,” says Linda. “And I’m happy that he still inspires people. But he was my big brother and now it feels like he’s my little brother in the picture, never getting older.” (Of note: Linda takes people on visits to various Pre-related sites in Coos Bay, called the Tour de Pre). All of this is complicated but Steve Prefontaine has remained a portion of whatever Eugene is to track and field; the amount of that portion is uncertain (and dependent on factors such as one’s age and, quite possibly, one’s race, as Prefontaine was a white hero in a sport with significant and essential Black representation).

Eugene hosted Olympic Trials in 1972, ’76 and ’80, but afterward the sport moved on. To Los Angeles (for the ’84 Trials and the wildly successful ’84 Olympics), to Indianapolis, to New Orleans, to Atlanta, to Sacramento. It seemed possible that whatever magic Eugene had possessed had run out of steam. But two things happened: One, none of those other cities dug deep roots – their Trials-hosting was a dalliance with the sport. Two, Lananna came to Oregon (he had previously been at Dartmouth and Stanford) and brought big ideas. “The goal was to let Hayward Field re-invent itself as the touchstone for track and field in the United States.”

Under Lananna, from 2005-12, the Oregon program flourished again, but that ultimately is inside baseball and would have gone unnoticed outside the sport’s high walls. Lananna had bigger plans that unfolded both during his tenure at Oregon and after it ended. “The goal was to create an infrastructure that made Eugene not the spiritual home of track and field in America,” says Lananna, “but also the physical home of track and field.” This was a big swing, that produced mostly hits and some misses, but a steady march forward.

Lananna was essential in bringing the 2008, ’12, and ’16 Olympic Trials back to Hayward Field, and all three were wildly successful, with a passel of Hayward Moments. Nike and Knight were essential too, with significant financial support of those Trials and the sport in Eugene and at large, a relationship that has been beneficial to track and field, but viewed by some as monopolistic. (Disclaimer: Nike has been a business partner to NBC Sports in track and and field and Olympic broadcasts.) Lananna also helped land the 2016 Indoor World Championships and conceived the 2016 Summer Series for post-collegiate runners seeking an alternative to European meets; according to reporting by respected Oregon writer Ken Goe, neither was financially successful.

The Worlds were Lananna’s white whale. He had been involved with Stanford’s bid for the 1999 Worlds (which went to Seville, Spain) and never lost his vigor for that cause, although the path was not smooth (these things rarely are). Eugene bid for the 2019 edition and lost to Doha. In 2015 at the World Athletics Convention in Beijing, the 2021 (postponed to this year by the global pandemic) Worlds were awarded to Eugene without a formal bid process, cause for celebration in Oregon and the U.S., disappointment in Gothenburg (which had hoped to present a bid for the event) and surprise worldwide.

In January of 2018, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Justice Department was investing global sports corruption and considering racketeering, money laundering and fraud charges, in particular relating to the 2019 Doha and 2021 Eugene bids. It was an ominous story. Under pressure, Lananna took a leave of absence from his position as president of USA Track and Field, an unpaid civilian position with little power, and was interviewed by the Justice Department. Former World Athletics president Lamine Diack was tried and in September, 2020, found guilty of corruption, although not related to the Eugene bid. Diack died in December of 2021. No charges have been brought relating specifically to Eugene. “It went nowhere,” says Lananna. “Everything we did was appropriate.”

Lananna left Eugene in 2018, and is now the head coach of track and field and cross country at Virginia. He was not a part of the final three years of preparation for the Worlds or the stadium that will host them. There is, however, little doubt that his vision and persistence created the ecosystem in which both exist. He was the person who revived what Bowerman birthed and what Prefontaine and his acolytes nurtured.

It is sensible to ask what becomes of track and field, and its de facto American home, after these World Championships. “The big question now,” says Lananna, “is what happens after July 25? What happens when the circus leaves town?” The next Summer Olympics are in Paris in 2024, and four years after that, in Los Angeles. “This is a jump start,” says Lananna. “We have six years to grow the sport of track and field in this country, to make household names out of our stars. We have a beautiful national stadium.” (That term).

The macro question is challenging. All Olympic sports struggle to prosper with the crumbs left behind by the NFL, college football and the NBA, the 800-pound gorillas who dominate sports viewing (and nowadays, legal wagering) in America. Whether Eugene remains the vortex of that struggle for track and field is more pointed issue. Attendance at events in the new Hayward Field has been disappointing, including a daily average of 3,326 for the USATF championships in late June. “The theory was, if we build it, they will come,” says Linda Prefontaine. “But they aren’t coming.” That’s harsh, but not inaccurate. But to be fair, Eugene is hosting many big meets in 2022, and fans could be waiting to spend their money on the biggest of them. And there is the issue with the “roof,” which provides minimal cover in a locale with weather extremes. Evening sessions for the Worlds are not sold out , but most nearly so. Capacity pitched to World Athletics was 30,000, but that was an unrealistic promise based on significant temporary expansion that has not happened: Official seating capacity is just under 13,000 and a full house would be in the 15,000-17,000 range. Still, it is hard to imagine anything less than a charged atmosphere for what is always a spectacular show for track fans.

The future? Mount San Antonio College (“Mount SAC” in the track world) in Walnut, California, won the bid for the 2020 Olympic Track and Field Trials, but USATF pulled that award in 2018, citing  uncertainty relating to a lawsuit challenging the use of bond money to improve the Mount SAC facility, a stunning decision. The 2020 Trials (moved to 2021) went back to Eugene; 2024 has not yet been awarded. It’s not difficult to understand how track and field could benefit from broader exposure of its biggest events. Whether it happens is unknown.

What is known is the present, and that on Friday evening in the Willamette River Valley of central Oregon, in the small city of Eugene, in a stadium that shines in the twilight, a little miracle will unfold. Runners will run, jumpers will jump, throwers will throw. Noise will rise into the sky, a modern sound. And also the unmistakable echo of feet stomping on wooden timbers from a distant past.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.